If you want to write about the Vietnam War, you need to read about it.
But there’s so much material out there, where do you start?
Go right to Vietnam: A History by former Time, Life and Washington Post Southeast Asia correspondent Stanley Karnow. Published in 1983 as a companion to the PBS series “Vietnam: A Television History,” it’s a sweeping narrative of American involvement in Vietnam.
A close second is A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan, a Vietnam War correspondent for UPI and The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1988 tells the story of an Army lieutenant colonel who at first challenged, then embraced, how America was fighting the war. This book will help you see why we lost it.
Two books made up my early reading of the Vietnam War: Ron Kovics’ Born on the Fourth of July, from 1976 (later made into a movie), and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, from 1977. I was a year out of college when my dad recommended Dispatches, saying it was powerful enough to give him nightmares.
To understand infantry combat in Vietnam, read We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (retired) and Joseph L. Galloway. This 1992 book, also made into a movie, is the story about the men of the 7th Cavalry who in 1965 fought the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang Valley.
A must book for writers is Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, published in 1998. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran, and Whitley expose phony heroes and show how Vietnam vets have been unfairly demonized. The book gives a valuable lesson in getting military documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
I also recommend Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, originally published in 1985 by The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission. Kurt Vonnegut called this collection of letters and poems “the sad and beautiful countermelody of truth.”
In fiction, there’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, first published in 1990. Interestingly for me, O’Brien served with the Army’s Americal Division, the more common name of the 23rd Infantry Division, in Vietnam in 1969. My cousin Nicky Venditti, an Army helicopter pilot who is the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, was also assigned to the Americal Division and was also in Vietnam in 1969. Nicky, however, only survived eleven days.
Two books that deal with the Americal Division helped me with my story about Nicky. One is Maj. Gen. Lloyd B. Ramsey, U.S. Army Retired: A Memoir, from 2006. Ramsey was the commander of the Americal Division at the time Nicky was on the Americal’s base at Chu Lai. My wife, Mary, and I visited the general at his home in McLean, Virginia, in 1998, and I have had numerous phone interviews with him.
The other book is Hostile Fire: The Life and Death of First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, written by Philip Bigler and published in 1996. Sharon Lane was a nurse at the evac hospital at Chu Lai. She was killed in a North Vietnamese rocket attack in June 1969 and was to be the only American servicewoman killed by enemy fire in the war.
Sharon’s replacement at the evac hospital was the subject of my last blog, Lynn O’Malley Bedics, who in July 1969 tended to Nicky as he lay dying after an Army instructor unwittingly detonated a grenade.
Reading these books about the Vietnam era has helped me connect the people I meet who were there with the events that dominated the headlines. Talking with Gen. Ramsey and Lynn O’Malley Bedics and reading of their experiences gave me the material I needed to fill out Nicky’s story.